A divided Highland Park City Council gave the OK for an urban planning firm to develop concepts for a potential expansion of its downtown event space, The Lot.
But even the councilmembers who supported moving forward expressed concerns about the process.
In a 5-2 vote at their regular meeting on Monday, April 10, councilmembers approved a nearly $70,000 agreement with The Lakota Group to create plans and designs for a potential build-out of The Lot.
Located at Central and St. Johns, in recent years The Lot has become a destination for local events and outdoor dining, according to City documents. In 2022, its inaugural season, The Lot hosted 17 events: two large-scale two-day events, six mid-scale one-day events and nine smaller-scale weekly events.
With more events planned for this year, City staff are exploring turning The Lot into a permanent entertainment space, according to the meeting packet. The Lot will host a Vintage Market on June 11 and Oct. 8, the Taste of Highland Park on June 23-25, World Music and Food Fest on July 15, and plenty more up to and through the holiday season.
Erin Jason, assistant city manager, stressed that approving the agreement does not commit the City Council to any development of The Lot. Rather, she said, The Lakota Group will spend the rest of the year soliciting feedback from residents and creating a design for what a potential setup may look like.
She said The Lakota Group will in May begin with community engagement, which may include focus groups, presence during on-site events at The Lot and stakeholder meetings. From there, Lakota will focus on site design, culminating with a presentation to the City Council.
The Lakota Group has a deadline of Dec. 31 for its planning.
“And as an individual unit, we’ll be able to take that plan in the future, should the council choose to vote for more permanent buildout, and directly apply for funding,” Jason said.
Councilmember Kim Stone said that while she supports examining potential expansion of The Lot, she would rather see those plans included as part of an overall downtown comprehensive plan.
“We need to take into consideration the need for an event space like this, the planned library expansion, current future parking needs, and the future development of the (Fourth of July) memorial,” Stone said. “The design should be done in a coherent way rather than piecemeal so we can figure out the most efficient way to meet all of these needs in the space that we have available.”
She added that one of her main concerns is creating a plan that ends up not being used.
“If we think comprehensively and creatively, we may be able to come up with another option,” Stone said.
Councilmember Michelle Holleman said she agreed with all of Stone’s concerns, and mentioned that The Lakota Group had previously created the City’s streetscape plan, which she said has never moved past the planning stage.
Holleman also wondered if there are better locations for an outdoor event venue.
“We do have a need for event space, but it doesn’t need to be in that lot,” she said. “That’s a parking lot. There are others.”
She also suggested the council wait for Councilmembers-elect Jeff Hoobler and Yumi Ross to be sworn in before moving forward.
Councilmember Andrés Tapia said he agreed that he would prefer to see a comprehensive downtown plan, but he also said this summer could be a great way for The Lakota Group to gather data and asked that the focus be expanded to ask about downtown overall.
“I would be in favor if we could just kind of pivot the focus about what is the objective of this study,” he said. “Is it really about how do we make The Lot a permanent structure and hear ideas, or how do we use The Lot as an experiment about what happens with live events downtown so we can inform the bigger project?”
Councilmember Anthony Blumberg said that while he agrees there are a lot of unknowns in terms of future development, he feels comfortable with tasking The Lakota Group with the planning, saying they will be given “a pretty broad canvas to work with” in terms of the data they collect.
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.